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Archive for the ‘Pennsylvania’ Category

Liberty Enshrined

Everyone believes in something. Even agnostics and atheists believe in something. Some put blind faith in money, thinking it will make them happy. Some put blind faith in material possessions, because, well, *sparklies*. Some put blind faith in their political party or right-left-center talking points. Some put blind faith in celebrity, buying Bieber cologne or other ludicrous claptrap. Some put blind faith in themselves, being so arrogant as to think they are infallible and therefore beyond question. Some even put blind faith in science, as odd as that sounds, believing that any and all studies that cross their path must be true (this leads to a lot of fad diets as well as other errors).

Copyright America In Context

Liberty’s Shrine

In my own case, I tend to put blind faith in the American ideal. For folks like me, Independence Park in Philadelphia is the Temple Mount, the Ganges River, the Mecca of our own beliefs. It’s a place of extreme importance, a shrine commemorating the place where the founding principles of this country were put to paper and approved by an assemblage of great minds and strong characters. A place where heretofore un-codified principles were defined and written into law and principle, grandiose notions such as “[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”; “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”; or “[t]he privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it”. Fabulous ideas, amazing ideas, ideas that would inspire nation after nation to rebel against tyrants and kings and establish democracy. It’s the Great American Way that Independence Park symbolizes, the Great American Way that I hold most dear.

Unfortunately.

Folks are going to worship me someday, aren't they? :sigh:

“Folks are going to worship me someday, aren’t they? :sigh:”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, ideals aren’t real. They don’t exist, and you can’t count on them. If you do, you will be betrayed. Every time. The American Ideal is the same: it’s full of betrayal. The original Constitution says that certain people are only worth 3/5ths of other people, and also said that those in bondage who escape to another state must be returned into bondage. Basically, it protected the vile institution of slavery for nearly 100 years. Even today, long after that particular abomination was wiped out by amendment, there is betrayal. These documents have been subverted, abused and weakened, leaving a system of government so devolved it barely represents the will of the people at all, and our nation is in a fine ruddy mess because of it.

Then again, it’s still important to hold onto ideals. It’s vital, actually. They are the goal, the dream, the vision, and without our goals, dreams and visions, we are a dead species. And to keep goals, dreams and visions alive, it is important that kids be indoctrinated (for lack of a better word) with ideals that are truly valuable, else they, too, will grow up to be tyrants and monsters; and you can’t do any worse than indoctrinating them into the important American ideals of equality, liberty, self-governance, and independence.

And naked statuary, of course

And naked statuary, of course

There is also no better element of that indoctrination than a trip to Independence Park in Philadelphia. I really like Philadelphia for one simple reason: the park is dedicated not to rebellion (like Boston, with it’s homage to the Boston Massacre, Faneuil Hall, and Paul Revere), nor to warfare (like Valley Forge or Yorktown), nor to marble monoliths (like Washington, DC) but to ideas, thought, consideration, and debate. It’s a site that contains meeting rooms, and convention halls, and judicial chambers;  not cannons, trenches, or cemeteries, but desks. It is a truly remarkable place in that aspect, it’s dedicated to ideas, and I find that refreshing.

But he's just sitting there! THINKING!

But he’s just sitting there! THINKING!

Liberty Imprisoned

I first visited Philadelphia in the 90’s. At that time, the Liberty Bell was in a non-descript glass enclosure inside Independence Hall. Anyone could see it. I never bought into Bell lore myself (like most American legends, it’s more tall tale than fact), but I kinda liked the presentation: subdued, no drama, viewable by everyone, kinda like I envision liberty itself. Freedom should not be a big deal, it should not be something we put on a pedestal. It should just “be”. You don’t pay attention to it when it’s there, you just live your life, yet everyone notices when it’s absent.

Then 9/11 happened, our liberties were sacrificed to the Lords of Fear, and The Liberty Bell became a symbol of our shift to madness.

In the grief-stricken days after 9/11, we were all expecting more terrorist attacks. We went bat-shit crazy protecting everything.  We improved airport security, then we “improved” airport security, then we began the systematic groin-groping known as the TSA. We started monitoring financial transactions, then started monitoring foreign communications, and now the NSA has a full-blown domestic spy program best suited for watching cheating spouses and stealing credit card numbers. We placed Jersey barriers in front of government buildings, we put metal detectors at the entry of every government building and landmark, and we built a prison for the Liberty Bell.

Liberty's Prison

Liberty’s Prison

On my second visit to Independence Park, I spotted the Liberty Bell Center, and it saddened me. The Liberty Bell is no longer just “there”, like our liberties should be. It is encased in a steel and glass structure, surrounded by guards and various security devices, reminiscent of a prison. It also, oddly, has the look of a high-end shopping mall, meaning not only is Liberty imprisoned but it’s also commercialized (they should call it Liberty Disney). I was so repulsed by the appearance of the Liberty Bell Center from afar, I didn’t have it in me to go there. Liberty was imprisoned and I didn’t want to be stuck on the outside, pressing my face against the glass in the hopes she’d remember me in her confinement.

I think the NPS has toned down the security in the intervening years, and I’ve heard from others that the Center is actually a pretty nice facility. But for me, the illusion has been shattered. The Liberty Bell, like the very civil liberties it represents, is not just cracked but contained, with an admission fee, groin groping, and gift shop.

[Photos on this blog entry are mine and thusly copyrighted.]

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Links:

Independence National Historical Park

Founding Fathers Fetish (slate.com)

3D Tour of the Liberty Bell

Google Map of Independence National Historical Park

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Boring Built America

The National Park Service has a couple hundred small, unimposing, mundane historic sites spread all over the country. They don’t cover events of magnitude, like Pickett’s Charge or the Gold Rush or the battle of the Alamo, but they are loved by their local communities and tell important stories nonetheless. Hopewell Furnace, in rural south-central Pennsylvania, tells one such story: mundane, boring, but vital.

Hopewell was an early ironworks, a forging business operating in  the late 18th, early 19th centuries. There, you can learn how charcoal was made; how limestone was harvested; and how those two materials were combined in a blast furnace with raw ore to form iron, the metal that transformed the world. Mundane & boring? Sure. Hopewell is well-maintained, the people are pleasant, the visiting children seemed to like it, but it isn’t particularly exciting. But you know what? Boring isn’t so bad: it built and defended this nation for over 200 years now.

It shouldn’t be too great of a leap to understand that iron built America. We look at the musket-carriers of the Revolutionary War with great reverence, but if it wasn’t for places like Hopewell, there would be no iron or steel for the musket barrels, wagon wheels, and cannons. We were in the early days of being an industrial juggernaut, producing 30,000 tons a year at the beginning of hostilities. Iron built the weapons that fought off enemies, shot at brothers, and conquered new territory. But it didn’t stop there. Iron built the railroads, and the great engines that rode on them. Iron built the ocean liners that shipped our goods everywhere in the world. Iron built the buildings and skyscrapers that housed finance, engineering, science, and even religion.

Yes, it’s all very poetic. What’s not poetic is how mundane it all is. Hundreds of men crawled around in mines, breathing in noxious fumes and dust and working themselves to the bone to extract ore. Dozens more gathered wood and endured the laborious process of turning wood into charcoal. Others dug limestone from cliff faces. Then there were the oxcart drives and teamsters, hauling stuff to and fro. Awfully boring, awfully dangerous, awfully hard work, all necessary to the production of iron at Hopewell Furnace.

But that’s what built this country. Not politicians, not “captains of industry”, not wealthy elitists, nor Harvard graduates or published authors or generals or soldiers or even architects. All of those occupations are worthless without real people doing real boring, mundane, uninteresting, hard work. Even today, it’s the trades who continue to build stuff. Whether they live & work in Pennsylvania or Mexico or China, today the entire world is built by the hard working folks doing the most boring of tasks over and over and over.

Next time you’re bored, remember: boring built America. And if you’re going to do something boring & monotonous, at least make it worthwhile to someone.

[All pictures are mine and thusly copyrighted. A few more, in black & white, are here.]

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Links:

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

A Brief History of Iron & Steel

Pennsylvania Iron Furnace Sourcebook

Voluntary Simplicity

Google map to Hopewell Furnace

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Peace & Respect

In this blog, I try to recreate the thoughts, experiences & emotions I felt during a visit to each site in the National Park System.

On the day I visited Gloria Dei, the old Swedish church in Philadelphia, there were services going on. Therefore, I unobtrusively snapped a couple of pictures and moved on my way, as quiet as I could be. This post will reflect that visit: a few pics and a few  unobtrusive sentences.

Peaceful people practicing their faith in a peaceful manner need to be respected. Give them that respect, whether it’s in the NPS or not.

 

[This post is dedicated to the memory of David Ericson, formerly of Naugatuck, Connecticut. He was a church choir singer, Boy Scout leader, proud father, devoted husband, strong UCONN Women’s Basketball fan, the nicest guy I have ever worked with in a professional setting anywhere anytime, and a true-blue Swede. Rest in peace, Dave.

Photos on this post are mine and thusly copyrighted.]

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Links:

Gloria Dei Church National Historic Site

The Old Swede’s Church

Swedish Immigration in North America

Google map to Gloria Dei

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Preconceptions and Perceptions

I did not want to write this post on Gettysburg. I’ve been dreading it for some time, but now it’s time, and I have to write it.

Gettysburg marks the place of one of the primary events in American history: the end of the farthest advance for the Confederacy, the turning point for the war that saved the Union, a war whose dead were honored in one of the greatest speeches ever given on American soil. This post should be an amateur historian’s dream.

But I can’t write about any of that. Instead, my mind goes to stuff like this:

Threats to Gettysburg

Land Use: The Second Battle of Gettysburg

Gettysburg, Ground Zero: Secular Sacred Spaces

For years, I’ve been reading about overdevelopment near Gettysburg. Story after story, anecdote after anecdote, describing all the fast-food restaurants, shopping plazas, and apartment blocks rising up near the Hallowed Ground. The despoilment of the views, the crush of traffic, the smell of greasy, fatty fried foods wafting through the monuments. When I finally made it to central Pennsylvania, I had all that … stuff … in my head. And that’s exactly what I saw, exactly what I smelled, exactly what I felt. Every time I stopped to read a memorial to a state’s militia, I saw parking lots. Every time I tried to contemplate the pained or foolish decisions of a military commander, a billboard loomed in the background. Every time I wanted to quietly ponder the fate of a slaughtered battalion, I smelled the unforgettable, rancid stink of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was distracted and ultimately disappointed by my visit.

But then an odd thing happened. In researching this post, I decided to do a little googlemapping. A couple of clicks later, I found something amazing: the stretch of developed road, the concentration of fast-food restaurants, the prevalent strip-malls, are really only in a small corner of the park. I then drove to the park again, years after my first trip, to see it again for myself. Now that I have a few more historical park visits behind me, I feel I can honestly say Gettysburg isn’t that bad. Which begs the question: is this level of development really an impingement on Gettysburg, or is all the press about the impingement on Gettysburg causing an impression on the visitors that isn’t necessarily true?

I have to be honest with you and with myself: as smart as I think I am, as impartially observant as I want to be, as factual and non-judgmental as I should be, I am still a human being, and I can still be influenced by the media, by public opinion, by emotion, and by rumor. I now think that’s what happened during my first visit to Gettysburg, and alas, those preconceptions effectively ruined my trip.

The problem of “paving over our history” is real. Every year, more historically significant sites and buildings are demolished, defaced, or allowed to fall into decay. There are reports of this all over the country, from adobe churches in New Mexico to the World Trade Center Vesey Sreet staircase. They even want to build a casino near Gettysburg (a terrible idea in my opinion). We’re losing or despoiling our heritage. It’s a sad thing.

Or is it?

Like all great ideas, the desire to protect our historical heritage can be taken too far. We can’t stagnate, we have to continue to make progress, and change is part of progress. I once read there is no stability, no steady-state, there is no maintaining the way things are (or were). There is only advancement through change, or there is entropy and decay. The battle of Gettysburg was fought around the existing village of Gettysburg, it would have been unfair to prevent that village from growing over time simply to preserve a battlefield. If we try to hold things close, try to latch on to the past, try to keep everything the same, we’ll never move forward, and succumb to entropy and decay. The town of Gettysburg would have died in the name of “preservation”.

When it comes to history, it is important that we preserve what is truly important, the sites that mark the true turning-point events, sites that can teach our generation and all the future generations, and put the continuing story of America into the proper context. But we can’t preserve everything that once was, because then we’d have no room for what will come. Historic preservation is like every other good idea: it can be taken too far.

But can we at least get rid of some of the KFCs out there?

[Again, I visited this site before I got a digital camera. Everything’s from the National Archives. I know this post isn’t what some of you may have expected. Trust me, I love Civil War history. Check out my Antietam and Chickamauga posts.]

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Links:

No Casino Gettysburg

National Trust for Historic Preservation

Historic Preservation: Gentrification or Economic Development

National Archives Maps of Gettysburg

Appalachian Brewing Company

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